Police face dilemma over when to take a suicidal officer’s gun
A law enforcement think tank wants police departments dealing with a suicide crisis in their ranks to rethink how they make one of their toughest decisions: when to take guns away from troubled officers.
The recommendation to review gun-removal policies is in a new report by the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum released in anticipation of a gathering of police chiefs this weekend in Chicago. It aims to help law enforcement agencies respond to a series of officer suicides this year in New York City and elsewhere around the country. A comparison of national statistics kept by nonprofit organizations shows that more law enforcement officers have died this year by their own hand than in the line of duty.
Last week, an off-duty sergeant became the 10th New York Police Department officer so far this year to take his own life, nine of them with a gun. Also last week, an officer in Maryland killed himself with a gun.
“There are risks in taking the guns and risks in not taking them,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the think tank. “The real question is, how do you support police officers without stigmatizing them?”
The report stems from a conference on police suicides in April at NYPD headquarters attended by police officials from around the world. It says when the subject turned to making officers surrender their weapons as a preventative measure, some officials expressed concerns that it could do more harm than good because it could “threaten his or her identity and purpose” and even “keep some officers from seeking help.”
With that in mind, the report says psychologists should be involved in any decision to remove guns. It also says the officers should be assured that they won’t lose their paychecks and that their weapons will be returned as soon as they’re cleared for duty. Typically, when such a decision is made, officials are supposed to take away all guns the officer owns, not only the service weapon.
“My threshold for recommending gun removal is very high,” said a Los Angeles Police Department psychologist quoted in the report, Denise Jablonski-Kaye. “As I sit and talk to an officer, maybe they have some problems, but if I don’t believe that they’re an imminent threat to themselves, I won’t recommend that their gun be taken.”
In New York, the police department recently decided it would stop taking away the badges of officers who are forced to give up their guns in nondisciplinary cases to help remove any stigma. Of the cases the NYPD’s medical division deals with, less than 10% result in guns being taken away, and the vast majority of those officers get their guns back and return to full duty, police said.
In addition, the NYPD unveiled a program this week that will allow officers to get free, confidential mental health services, including counseling and prescription drugs, through the New York-Presbyterian Hospital system. By relying on non-department, non-city providers, police officials hope the program, dubbed Finest Care, can eliminate the stigma associated with seeking help.
Removing a firearm is “part of a comprehensive process to support the officer through a temporary difficulty so they can return to full duty and a fulfilling career,” the NYPD said in a statement. “At its core, it is a judicious measure carried out with dignity and designed to save a life.”
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